By Mary Ann Anderson
From Tribune News Service
Shivering from winter’s morning chill, I apprehensively slip off the back end of a pontoon boat and thread my way into the warm waters of Crystal River on Florida’s west coast. It is cold, in late January, and the air temperature hovers in the upper 30s. Still, the sun is bright in the brilliant blue, unclouded sky.
The watery landscape of the river is mirrored and clear, drenched with flowing sunlight. As I ricochet off from the boat into the water, I gather my courage and wits, as I’m about to swim unnervingly close to a mama and baby manatee, which together probably weigh close to a ton. Just one knock of the mother’s enormous tail could fling me back to Georgia.
I’m sheathed in a skintight neck-to-ankle black wetsuit and weigh much more than I should. To the mother and child, I probably look more manatee than human, although I’m assured otherwise.
“She knows you’re human and not a manatee. She’s not going to hurt you,” assures Capt. Ross Files of the Plantation Adventure Center and Manatee Tours in Crystal River. “Don’t be alarmed if she bumps you.”
If there is any cause for alarm, it melts away as mommy rolls over like a big ol’ lovable puppy and evocatively offers her massive barnacle-flecked tummy for a rub. But I’m reminded of my “manatee manners,” of looking and not touching. It doesn’t matter, though, as then and there I fall instantly and utterly in love with these gentle creatures who look as if they’re a wrinkly, whiskered primordial hybrid of elephant, walrus and hippopotamus.
Learning About Manatees
Manatees, sometimes called sea cows, are graceful and move as slow as sorghum as they propel themselves through the water with their paddle-like tails. Their typical day is one to be envied: they spend it eating, sleeping and floating along with nary a care in the world.
“The water must be warm,” says Files, explaining that their body temperature, averaging 97.5 degrees, is close to that of a human’s. “It must be at least 68 degrees, and the water here is an average of 72 degrees all year.”
Several species of manatees, which can grow up to 13 feet long and weigh upward of 3,000 pounds, are found throughout the world. The best known is the West Indian manatee of the scientific order Sirenia, and the Florida manatee, like those at Crystal River, is its subspecies. Their range is the southeastern United States, the Caribbean and as far south as Brazil.
The Amazonian manatee, on the other hand, is found only in the fresh waters of the Amazon basin, while the West African manatee inhabits coastal rivers of western Africa. The dugong, similar in appearance and behavior to the manatee save for its whalelike-fluked tail, thrives in the warmer coastal regions that span the Red Sea, Indian Ocean and Pacific. Another of the Sirenians, the Steller’s sea cow, with a length that was estimated to be up to 25 feet, inhabited the colder waters of the Bering Sea, is now extinct, having been wiped out by Arctic explorers in the 18th century.
Why Manatees are Threatened
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates at least 7,520 manatees remain in Florida, an impressive number, considering manatee numbers dwindled to fewer than 2,000 in the 1970s and the species was considered “endangered.” The West Indian manatee, which naturally lives to about 60 years old, became protected under federal law by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. They are also protected by the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978, which provides that the entire state is considered a sanctuary and refuge. In 2017 they were downgraded to “threatened” after federal wildlife managers concluded their numbers were on the rebound.
Manatees were placed on the endangered list in the first place for myriad reasons. An elixir of sea grass is their favorite food — they can eat up to a tenth of their body weight in a single day — and coastal development and pollution drastically decimated their grassy habitats, leaving them without enough to eat. Boat and propeller collisions were commonplace, and manatees also become entangled in crab traps and fishing nets and lines. Sudden freezes, diseases, red tide and other catastrophic natural disasters also led to their near extinction. These events still occur — Florida has lost 600 manatees so far this year — and manatees could be placed back on the endangered list.
Visiting the Manatees
I swam and snorkeled with the manatees in a tour provided by the Adventure Center of the Plantation on Crystal River, and everything was included in the price, which starts at $75 per person. Expect snorkels and goggles to fins and wetsuits. The boats leave directly from the resort dock, so if you stay at the resort, you can simply walk there from your room.
While the springs around Crystal River are the only places in the U.S. where you can legally swim with the manatees, you can also see them at several places around the Sunshine State, according to Visit Florida. Among those places are Three Sisters Springs at Crystal River, Blue Springs State Park in Orange City, TECO Manatee Viewing Center at Apollo Beach, Lee County Manatee Park at Fort Myers, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Titusville and Manatee Lagoon, a Florida Power and Light Company Eco-Discovery Center at Riviera Beach.
As you fall in love all over again on a getaway to swim with the manatees, you’re also practically guaranteed to fall in love at first sight with these wondrous animals. The manatee season in Crystal River is from November until March, so if you want to see lots of them — Files says that on cold days the river and springs team with up to 700 manatees — watch the weather forecast.
“The colder the air,” reminds Files, “the more manatees you’ll see.”
If You Go
Visit the Plantation on Crystal River at www.plantationoncrystalriver.com or call toll-free 800-632-6262. The nearest major airport is Tampa International Airport. Tampa International Airport is 73 miles away, which is about 90 minutes via car. The next-closest airport is Orlando International Airport, 96 miles away with a drive of about two hours.
Visit the Adventure Center at Plantation on Crystal River at www.plantationadventurecenter.com or call 352-795-5797. Guided tours begin at $75 per person and include wetsuit, mask, snorkel gear, water, towel service, heated changing facility and hot shower. Scenic cruises begin at $18 per person.
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